I liked this book. Just not as much as critics seemed to.
Three Parts Dead is one of those genre books that receives effusive and near-universal praise from critics familiar to the genre. To some extent, the book deserves the acclaim. Max Gladstone’s world is a daringly constructed melange of tropes from disparate genre traditions, including steampunk, urban fantasy, epic fantasy, thriller, and legal procedural. In this universe, ancient gargoyle clans co-exist with necromantic legal firms, gods sign contracts with eldritch horrors to lease out their elemental powers, and cities are policed by magic cyborgs. It’s a blend of ancient biology, steampunk technology, and modern society, a world enlightened by the bonds of trade and knowledge transfer, even if its currency is in the application of magic, and not science.
The society of the city of Alt Coloumb, as depicted in the book, is an especially interesting contrast to fantasy’s tendency to essentialize good and evil into easily-identifiable physical manifestations. In Gladstone’s world, ageless skeletons, bloodsucking vampires, drivers of corpse henchmen, and eldritch tentacles don’t signal the presence of evil – they’re acknowledged as parts of the world, complex and authentic beings in their own right, as free to choose their own moral paths as they wish. Some people fear and mistrust them, sure, but they’re largely the parochial, ignorant and prejudiced masses. In other words, you aren’t defined by the number of squamous appendages that emanate from your gelatinous mass, or whether your innate magic has a disturbing tendency to reanimate corpses. You’re defined by what you choose to do with them. It’s a surprisingly fresh take on fantasy that I’m frankly surprised I don’t encounter more often, just because it’s such an effective way to incorporate a socially liberal ethos in one’s writing. It’s something that isn’t fully developed in this first novel of the Craft Sequence, however, although it is hinted at, and I hope that he went in that direction in his subsequent books, which I will be reading.
I kind of feel, though, that Three Parts Dead is a little more interesting for its world than for its story and characters. The story, in particular, suffers from a surfeit of handwavium. This is in part to the existence of a magic system – the eponymous Craft – that is essentially applied by Gladstone in a haphazard fashion to get his characters out of scrapes. Brandon Sanderson has a law for writing magic systems in fantasy. The First Law, he says, is that an author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic. Well, I didn’t quite understand Craft; its abilities, limitations and idiosyncrasies were not transparent to the reader, but were liberally applied in conflict-solving. The irony is that this appears intentional. There is a character, Abelard, who knows nothing of Craft but accompanies the Craft-wielding protagonist Tara Abernathy on her heroic quest. Every time Craft is used Abelard is subject to a long explanation from Tara as to why Craft worked in this particular respect and not in others. Abelard is us. He’s the bewildered muggle, bedazzled by the recondite magic raging around him.
The real fault of Craft is not that it isn’t realized in a realistic fashion, but that its rules are opaque to the reader. Gladstone may have planned out an entire system of self-consistent magic, but if the reader doesn’t understand that system, then the magic is bound to seem like a deus ex machina every time it is deployed. This is the same problem, I think, that affected the second half of Harry Potter and Deathly Hallows, as well as 95% of fantasy anime.
Apart from that, Gladstone’s world seems slightly…half-baked. Understandably so, since all the action takes place in a single city, and tantalizing hints are given of other nations and players…but they are only stage-paintings. Alt Coulomb, as a city, didn’t quite emerge as a fully-fleshed locale or setting. This is somewhat compounded by the occasional but slightly baffling use of real-world terms (when, you know, near everything else was made-up) that took away from the verisimilitude and made me question if the world of Three Parts Dead wasn’t a future Earth or something. The world also has very little sense of history, if that is a fair statement to make for a relatively slim first volume.
Characters, plot progression and prose were unremarkable, serving as ciphers to create a fairly pedestrian overall narrative arc. The characters themselves, in particular, were too starkly defined as neatly-packaged single-conflict-driven automata. Their thoughts, feelings and intentions are too transparent to the reader. It was almost like Gladstone used writing prompts from a creative writing course to flesh them out. The main villain is also firmly part of the “I want to be all-powerful, even at the expense of my humanity” trope. It actually reminds me of certain second-rate shounen anime, with their eclectic world building but somewhat two-dimensional character arcs. Fortunately, Gladstone has the wisdom not to cram in a half-formed romance in the works.
All in all, I think this is a very good debut novel from a potentially great voice in fantasy. Gladstone’s greatest strength is in coming up with compelling ideas and frames, made up of unlikely permutations of established tropes, to inform world-setting and story. Other mechanics could use some polishing, but he surely has a long and successful career ahead of him.
I give this book: 3 out of 5 Hidden Schools